Robert M. Price – The Paperback Apocalypse

March 07, 2008

Robert M. Price is professor of theology and scriptural studies at Coleman Theological Seminary and professor of Biblical Criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute. He’s a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and the Jesus Seminar. Dr. Price is the author of a number of books such as The Reason Driven Life, Deconstructing Jesus, Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, and The Da Vinci Fraud. He has appeared widely in the media, and was featured prominently in the movie The God Who Wasn’t There. His latest book is The Paperback Apocalypse: How the Christian Church Was Left Behind.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Bob Price discusses his new book The Paperback Apocalypse, detailing both the origins of the belief in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and the influence of this belief in fiction. He touches upon the wide array of apocalyptic novels, including The Omen, Stephen King’s The Stand, and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, offering both literary and theological criticism. He also explores the psychological appeal of such apocalyptic novels.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, March seven, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science and reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, Bob Price, whom we’ve gotten a number of e-mails requesting to have back on the show, here’s a word from this show’s sponsor, Free Inquiry magazine. 

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I’m happy to have Bob Price back on point of inquiry. He’s professor of scriptural studies at the Johnnie Coleman Theological Seminary and the editor with Jeffrey J. Louder of the Empty Tomb Jesus Beyond the Grave. He’s also editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism. He’s the author of The Reason Driven Life. His Response to the Purpose Driven Life. Also, The Da Vinci fraud. Many, many other books. And he’s on point of inquiry today to talk to me about the paperback Apocalypse, how the Christian Church was left behind. Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Bob Price. 

It’s it’s great to be here. What a privilege. Great show. What a what an innovation. 

I’m proud to be part of it. 

Bob, thanks for saying that. I loved this book. The paperback Apocalypse brought me back to the days when I was something of a fundamentalist Christian myself. And I should confess that the thing that attracted me most to the church I was in at first wasn’t Jesus’s social gospel. It wasn’t going out and saving souls. It was end time prophecy, of course. That’s kind of the specialty of the church that I was in at the time. In any case, start off with a general question, Bob. How central to Christianity today is this End-Time prophecy stuff, the apocalypse, this belief that the end times are happening right now? 

Well, in some quarters, like I would say, a lot of Pentecostal and fundamentalist denominations. It’s very central, very close to the center, as it apparently was in the early church a couple of thousand years ago, to the point where the second coming of Christ threatens to crowd out the first. And the reason that’s kind of dangerous, whether you’re a member or not, a well-wisher or not, is that with the first coming of Christ, you’ve got cattle, Jesus, meek and mild, who you know from whom. And one can learn all manner of things. But it was the second coming of Christ. You’ve got this ominous figure with robes soaked in blood, ready to judge the wicked and take those who’ve taken the mark and throw them into a lake of fire and suffering. Then you suddenly realize, gee, I’m one of the ones they think going in. And so it gets a little frightening. 

Yeah. That Jesus is the superhero Jesus, not the spiritual Jesus. 

That’s right. And he’s not only that, but he’s like a bat taking superhero like the Punisher with, you know, the time for mercy is over. You’ve had your chance. As if it did right. As if it were really possible to take the rantings of eminent theologians like Jack Van Empey and Jimmy Swaggart seriously, like Jesus is really going to blame Bertrand Russell for not being able to blame on Jerry Falwell. And the worst should get into this. It’s like Planet of the Apes. The whole thing is just sort of a nightmare scenario. 

All right. I love that you mentioned Jack van MPLX have family members who still watch him regularly. And I’ll admit that I. I like watching this stuff. It’s different, though, watching it for entertainment and reading it literally. It sounds like a lot of the Christians who buy these apocalyptic fiction books do a little of both. They’re reading it as fiction. They’re also reading it literally. 

And I think that’s because they’re in a strange position psychologically. Is this an interesting book by Paul Vaine called that? Did the ancient Greeks believe their myths and takes a lot of signals implied in ancient Greek writing? To think that they probably did believe in Hercules and the Hydra and all of this stuff, but not in quite the same compartment of reality in which they did their daily jobs, etc.. Well, I think something similar happened today where people are seeking escape from a mundane world of taxes and bad salary, an awful environment that taking refuge in a fictional world in which they’re on top of things and every tear will be dried and so on. And they have the added satisfaction of saying. And my pastor tells me it’s all true. So if I can just hang on. They’re enjoying it is fiction. And putting themselves into it is fiction, much like a Star Trek fan who goes to a convention. I know that sounds so contemptuous. And I’m I’m sorry. I don’t really mean that that way, but I think that is going on. 

I want to get more into the psychology of the believers in the apocalypse in a bit. But first off, what got you to write this book? I know you’re like me. We’ve talked before. You know it. CFI events, other places you like following what the fundamentalists are up to. But even though I like watching the TV preachers, I have not had the self-discipline to read through all the volumes of Tim LaHaye is Left Behind series this books, among all the other things that you’re critiquing in your book. 

Well, I have loved reading this and the world books, fiction and nonfiction division to be made. Ever since they started coming out, the recent wave of them around 1970. And no matter how badly they were written novels about the end of the world, like Salem turbans, abominable books, six, six, six, just seriously poorly written. Nonetheless, I thought, wow, this is fascinating. And it’s supposed to be true. And so if the years went by and I eventually dropped this whole line belief, still I had this residual valuing that as as entertainment, it was kind of a thrilling thing. Just imagine the world is ending and the Antichrist appears so simply as fantasy fiction. I kind of still liked it in one day, some of the Prometheus books said, how’d you like to write some kind of refutation of the late Jenkins books? Well, I had thought I guess this is the end of my hobby with that, because there’s no way I read an all twelve of these books. But once they said there was a book in it, I decided, All right, what the heck? And I read those and forty eight more books, novels, scholarly work, etc.. I counted them up one day to prepare for writing this thing. And I have to admit the Left Behind series was written pretty well. It was it was pretty enjoyable compared to the others. 

Yeah. I was really awed by how comprehensive your treatment of all this apocalyptic fiction. You treated them all in the book. You not only go into depth regarding the Left Behind series, but covered just about every novel that’s been written about Jesus coming back and end time prophecy. 

Any one I could find. I would track down and read. How interesting to compare the different interpretations of the Rapture and the Antichrist and all of that. To what degree was this book or that one really an attempt at literature or was it just propaganda? And I thought, well, it’s pretty weird, but if anyone has any interest in these things, they might get a kick out of seeing this kind of literature. 

And you not only touched these fictional accounts or the kind of the novels, but you get into the theology that undergirds the arguments in these novels. You go into how the whole idea of Jesus coming back got started. For most Christians today. They see it kind of getting started right in the gospels of the New Testament, where Jesus seems to say himself that he will return. He talks about a great tribulation and all these other things. That’s where most Christians today think they’re getting their stuff and indeed they are. 

But that’s not the beginning of it. It’s it’s surprising to take a very close look at a lot of scholars have, especially at Mach 13, the so-called Olivet discourse or the little apocalypse. When you do, you realize that almost every verse of this is adapted from some Old Testament passage. And on the whole, it appears to be kind of a later item inserted into Mark. And as Timothy Kilani discovered way back around the time of the civil war, and you begin to think, wait a minute, this doesn’t look like a very good candidate for the actual teaching of the historical Jesus, assuming there was one. And if they didn’t get it from him, where did it come from? And luckily, there are other scholars that have gone through a painstaking comparison between all these sayings in the Gospels and First Thessalonians, etc., on the one hand and then on the other numerous Old Testament passages where Jesus behold the Lord, meaning Jehovah is coming from Mount Zion and he’s going to judge this and that. And you realize, yeah, as they began to defy Jesus, they began to assume, well, the stuff that applied to Jehovah applies to him. He’s now the representative of Jehovah. And so we have the notion that Jesus will come to judge the nations. So it seems from there they put it into the mouth of Jesus as a literary character, which is very surprising. It’s just almost the opposite of what you thought. 

So like a lot of other scholars of the Bible, especially those in the historical critical method, you see that the New Testament, the Christian Bible, it was written by believers who took parts of the Old Testament and recast them around this figure of Jesus to make sense out of him in terms of their existing religion. 

This Judaism, informed by the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, to an amazing degree, because not only are these processes and that’s really staggering when you look at the sea, how much of it comes from these coming of the Lord passages? But I didn’t get it within this book, but so much even that the gospel narrative can be shown to just be. Rewrites of all manner of Old Testament stories from the Greek translation Septuagint Prometheus as a great little book out by Randall Hallam’s called Gospel Sections, and he traces many of these stories back to Old Testament prototypes. John Dominic Crossan and many others have done it. And I undertook a study comparing all the scholars who had done that and weeding out what I thought were far fetched arguments. And I came to the conclusion that amazed me that virtually every story in the Gospels is demonstrably a rewrite of an Old Testament story. 

It’s gotten much less from the big point you make in this book is that 1st century Christians all believe Jesus was going to come back in their lifetimes because the New Testament says so. But the whole thing was undermined because Jesus didn’t come back in the lifetime of the people who obviously thought so in the New Testament. 

Yeah, there is a statute of limitations on this thing. You don’t have statements to the effect. Well, one day Jesus will come back. The closest you have to that is back pedaling statements. 

No man knows the day or hour or something like that. 

Yeah. Now, if that’s all you have, that might be reason to think. Oh, well, one day, who knows? I better live as a faithful Christian just in case. But in fact, there are many governments say this generation will not pass away before all these things happen. There’s some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God coming, et cetera, et cetera, brethren. This is the last hour. And how do we know? Because many Antichrist’s have appeared. Behold, I am coming quickly, etc.. Then you notice some of these passages start recording with a delay. Several in Matthew, 24 and 25. The master went away and assigned each servant his job, but he was away a long time and the servant said, She’s my my master is delayed. I guess I can really do whatever I want. And this delay aliments, wouldn’t you think that this is kind of impossible? I love the show King of the Hill and Dale Gribble at one point says this, quote, That immediately crystallized the issue. He says, wait a minute, this change in plan wasn’t in the original plan. 

That’s right. 

But in the gospels, here is Jesus giving the original plan containing a change in plans. What does that tell you? This has been reworked to try to meet the delay. And it was delayed again and again and again as it is today. But what they don’t understand is what they sort of do. They sort of do understand that there is a real threat with Jesus having predicted it of his own lifetime. And it’s failing because when their backs are against the wall, the apologists squirm any old way. They say, oh, well, that doesn’t mean this generation and means this nation that this nation will not pass away as if that made any sense or to send whatever generation is alive at the time will be alive at the time. Why? Why say such a tautology? And yet here you kind of see a dim recognition of what the stakes are. We’re up the creek. If Jesus predicated everything on this, I mean, there’s not a lot of stuff you could test out, right? If somebody says there’s an invisible, heavenly world above us, are you going to tell that in another dimension? Might be. Might not be. But the guy says, look, the world is coming to an end at the end of this generation. All right. We can test that. And guess what happened? Look at the calendar. So this really is damning. It’s the kind of thing fundamentalists themselves ridicule the Jehovah’s Witnesses for setting dates and they keep failing. Why does that not debunk traditional Christianity in the same way? 

Yeah. There are a lot of fundamentalist Christians whom themselves set dates and they offer predictions and they say this is not just my interpretation of the Bible, but the Bible’s interpreting itself. The Bible says Jesus is coming back X date. It doesn’t happen. And yet they come up with fanciful ways of making sense out of that. Are these novels a way to make sense out of this feeling of Jesus to come back? Or are they feeding off the darn certainty that that he is coming back? 

Well put. I think what they’re actually doing is the former. What they say they’re doing is the ladder. It seems clear to me that the function of all these novels and movies about the end of the world is to psychologically fill the gap according to the beliefs these people have hammered home and church every week. This ought to be happening any time. Should that happen before now? It’s not happening. So what do we do? Well, in our imagination, we see it happening and that kind of suffices, at least until we get the next installment, because it softens it soothes the wound of disappointed expectation. There’ve been enough predictions within most adults lifetimes that have fallen through that. Some of them must be disappointed. But this eases that if I can just see the tribulation, etc. in my imagination on the page. Well, that’s not as good as the real thing. But it does kind of salve the wound survey for me. 

Some of his novels, I think, are things like in the 70s, the Olman loved that movie series, haven’t read the novel, but also the stand by Stephen King. These mass market novels kind of horror genre, almost. They’re really different than the stuff written primarily for Bible believers, right? 

Yes. Those strangely, from what I’ve read, The Omen was intended as a kind of an evangelistic scare. How Lindsay was one of the consultants, but they began to veer off too much for him. And so he abandoned the project. 

Ronald A. Lindsay, the author of The Late, Great Planet Earth, like the single best selling title of the 70s or something. 

Yeah. And you notice, for instance, when Gregory Peck’s character, Thorn, is fronted by this wild eyed Catholic priest and the priest says to Mr. Thorne, You must receive Jesus Christ into your life. Holy mackerel, where did that come from? Well, the early evangelical influence on the movie. So you still see some of it. 

But, yeah, you don’t really see it in the final version of the movie because how Lenzi in some of those End-Time prophesies, there is a decidedly anti Catholic bandon in the movie The Good Guys or the Catholics. 

Yeah. And it’s funny how in the novel of the final conflict by Gordon McGill, which I assume must have been based on the screenplay, Jesus is born, as Damien Thorn expects, when he tries to kill all of the infants he’s born. And Damian can’t get to him because he’s born without any birth records among gypsies and the hillsides. But in the movie, that changes completely and they yank the premise out from under it. Turns out Jesus comes back as an adult, miraculously, just like fundamentalists expect. So I just a pure somebody got to the studio and said, you don’t want us to boycott this, do you? 

What about the stand by, Stephen King? It seems biblical. It seems almost kind of Christian because there is a lot of coding parts in the Bible. But it was Stephen King. You wasn’t trying to save souls or get people ready for the second coming. 

Right. I asked him once if he had any experience in fundamentalism or had any relatives that were into it. He said, well, not really, except that he had a brother in law sold Amway. But he is so right on target with the mother Abigail character. Who is this? S ab negating pietistic is so believable with just just fits so well saintly little old ladies I’ve known in churches and the psychology. So I felt the stirring of pride. Oh God forgive me. It was so true to life. And yet he didn’t try to do every job title of a book of revelation as he did. And so what he gives you is a novel with real suspense. The characters are Sanches. I can’t believe this, but it looks like revelation is playing out, but not blow by blow. So what is going on here? What do we do with the hay? There’s no real suspense. He maps it out and says, Now let’s watch it come to life. Get your popcorn. But with with Stephen King, he really had it as as a suspense novel. And to me, that just edges out of the Left Behind series, which I like and I think is well done. 

But I’d say King is is even better so because LaHaye and Jenkins track the Bible Book of Revelations, Daniel the gospel accounts because they they try to track it as accurately as they imagine the Bible’s telling them to. Is that easier for people to take it literally actually reading it, knowing? Well, yes, it’s it’s fiction on the one hand. But on the other hand, it’s true because the Bible says this is how it’s going to play out. 

Yes, something very much like this must happen, and they’re there obtrusive in preaching to the reader, constantly saying here’s where we get the sort of revelation. If I’m not mistaken, we’re going to have the 12th trumpet, the 13th trombone bagpipe revelation coming up here. And and then this is going to happen. And it’s very arbitrary that that doesn’t work so well. But I imagine there are a lot of fundamentalists who read it, didn’t quite even agree with LaHaye, but what the heck, they’re willing to split the difference. 

But LaHaye and Jenkins are writing it for fundamentalist Christians. Would you say, though, or are they trying to save the unconverted through this great vehicle of a bestselling fiction novel series? 

Well, no doubt both this had the same sort of function. God knows how, if there is one as the miserable purpose driven life. And both were written primarily for fundamentalist audiences who I’m convinced must have been well versed in the dogma and both. And yet it was supposed to be some great man thing. And on the basis of that, they would use it as an evangelistic tract. I had people tried to get me saved by reading The Purpose Driven Life, which I finally did. A writer refutation of it. 

And then you wrote The Reason Driven Life. We’ve had a show about it. 

And the same thing with this. I mean, it’s a little hard to imagine somebody saying why the theory of these 12 big volumes. But apparently people were doing it. They picked them up and all, Martin, get scared. And the salvation that sort of doesn’t work in. Unless you have a kind of superstitious Christianity. 

Well, a lot of wouldn’t you say a lot of fundamentalist Christianity. Is that kind of superstitious Christian? 

Yes. I’ve known people that only perked up their ears when somebody told them that the Antichrist was coming to town and that they’d get their innards toasted or whatever. Well, that kind of thing isn’t gonna last long. You can get scared momentarily. But if that’s all that hooked you into it, that’s pretty shallow. 

Well, there are a lot of people who stay in certain fundamentalist sex because they’re just trying to save their skin and it lasts their whole kind of theological career. But you’re saying as a as a mass movement, it’s just not going to last. There needs to be something more to it. 

Who knows? But I think so because there is so much of it that is obvious fiction and it’s even billed is that it seems to be someone that started taking Christianity seriously because they read left behind will shortly think to themselves. Well, most of this is fiction. Is there any reason to think that any of it’s not? And I think evangelical Christianity is having a huge problem otherwise, and this is not really going to help them. They’re beginning to assimilate so much to the mainstream society, especially their youth, that I think the wall between them is collapsing and the days of this movement are numbered. 

Bob, you when the paperback apocalypse, by arguing that it’s this poor fundamentalist Christian reader who’s really been left behind or not just the reader of the Left Behind book series, but the fundamentalist in general because he or she has been left at the altar by Jesus. Nineteen hundred years ago, they’d been waiting for Jesus to come back. It’s just not happening. 

It’s so tragic that people pin so much on this. They ought to realize it’s never happened. It’s never gonna happen. I do think, however, there plenty of Christians for whom this is not central. And if Christianity or when I first got converted to it, a 10 year old, I guess it was couple of years before I ever heard. I mean, think about this. I had heard of Jesus when I was a little kid, but I began to hear that there’s going to be a second coming of Jesus. And what the heck is this Antichrist thing? I didn’t know that was part of Christianity. And it seemed that kind of an odd importation. I just betcha if it had never been part of it, there wouldn’t been this problem. People would have gone to church and felt like they needed to get saved and they’d live good Christian lives. And this thing would not have been the thorn in the side that it’s become. 

But on the other hand, would there be a Christianity had there not been a 19, 100 year obsession with Jesus’s second coming? 

I bet there would. I think as long as you had the substitutionary death on the cross and the resurrection and believe that Jesus was alive now and put you in touch with God, I think that would have done the trick. Because in most churches like the Orthodox Catholic, the Lutheran Episcopalians, even though this is on the books, they’ve never made that much out of it. And I suspect the Baptists and others wouldn’t lose anything. They’ve got enough other stuff to be interested in excited about. Like if you say to the Pentecostal, what do you think? More exciting, the prospect of Jesus second coming or the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Oh, they say it’s the baptism of the Holy Spirit, right. 

Speaking in tongues is a lot more fun than pouring through your Bible for another reason. Jesus is coming back in 18 months. 

Yeah. So I think many of them wouldn’t really loosen and they would have it one less of a major headache. They’d have no trouble if they figure it. Well, when you die, you go to heaven and see Jesus. That’s good enough. The fact that somebody came up with a second coming of Jesus thing. Oh, what a royal nightmare. And all the social convulsions that have come about because of it. 

Bob, to finish up, a lot of science types are going to find the language in Tim LaHaye and other books like Left Behind the Rapture, Pre Millennialism the Beast, Power or the Beast. Well, they’re going to find it really incoherent. But you say that if we look at all this literature from maybe a literary perspective, we can get something out of it. You almost say we need these myths in order to make sense out of the incredible amount of evil in the world. 

Yeah, I think that’s true. Jerry Brown say this once on his radio show. I already agreed with him, but I was glad to hear him say it, that there is something about evil in the world that is incarnated in systems that go beyond the ability of any one individual to change. And this is you can only really grasp this. You only avoid the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt talked about and call it evil by invoking these mythic images. That’s no metaphysical claim or anything is not a claim. There is an evil ness or a devil. No. But but if you can call some people in some things devilish, you don’t have the words you need, then that’s what this myth is sometimes good for. Mm hmm. 

Thank you so much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Bob Price. 

What an honor to be on. Thank you. 

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Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.